Teaching Comparative Literature through Master Class

More and more people are becoming familiar with the master class, a particular teaching method very common in music schools. The method has been popularized by Terrence McNally’s play by the same title (1995), based on the famous 1971 Maria Callas classes at Julliard, but also easy YouTube access to well-known masters conducting classes, such as Daniel Barenboim on the Hammerklavier.

While the scholarly seminar may be compared to a Greek symposium, where participants express several views on a particular topic or work, the artistic master class resembles the Platonic dialogue where a master guides a student in the pursuit of a technique or principle.

One may find so-called master classes by Slavoj Žižek, John Coriglinao, or Philip Glass, but these are either informal talks or public interviews in front of an audience that do not involve interaction with students. They are occasions for a presentation where thinkers and artists discuss their own work and do not engage with the work of students. For example, in their “master classes” composers and writers present their work and answer questions but do not engage with students’ own current work – which would be a fascinating thing for many of us to witness.

The standard master class in music school is announced in advance and open to the public, and it lasts for two hours with thirty-minute sessions devoted to four students. The master teacher is an established practitioner, who may or may not be a teacher by profession, and who is recognized by his guild of musicians for his mastery of a particular craft. The knowledge she or he commands consists in techniques and skills, not facts and sources: they are master craftspeople. At the beginning of each session a student plays a prepared very short piece; then the teacher invites them to consider several interpretive possibilities and asks them to try them out. At the end, the student plays the piece again in light of what they have learned during the session.

My fascination with this teaching method has grown ever since Pantelis Polychronidis and I started attending master classes together, and I have been talking more and more to colleagues about its potential for humanistic education. It is not better or worse than the seminar format, just different. On the negative side, it loses the conversation, the polyphony of appearances; on the positive one, it gains an emphasis on performance, the dynamism of new creation.

I am planning to activate this format in Fall 2015, when I teach “Key Issues in Theory”2060 FA2015 CL600 Lambropoulous 11 x 17 the introductory graduate seminar in our Department of Comparative Literature, at the beginning of our weekly three-hour sessions. Each time a student will give a brief presentation not introducing but performing a theoretical concept. The goal will be to propose a musical interpretation more than an explicatory one, to read a score, as it were, rather than a text. Music notation works as a map providing points of orientation that allow musicians to chart their own interpretive journey through time. Students will try charting a comparable journey. For example, they may take a philosophical (the good), theoretical (the subaltern), or critical (the Romantic) notion and render it not in explanatory terms (what it may mean) but in performative ones (how it may be played) whereby something is done as a piece and not with it.

Following the student’s interpretation, I will not correct them or show them what it really means but encourage them to consider with me other possibilities and ponder what work they may generate, giving students at the end of our one-to-one dialogue a chance for a repeat performance, as it were, which will be essentially a new one. After thirty minutes or so the class will move into the seminar mode and open the conversation up to additional approaches.

As we know, soloists, quartets, and orchestras do not get the music “wrong.” Discussing a classical, pop, world, let alone jazz concert we usually do not say that the interpretation was “wrong.” We may reject it, deem it unacceptable, but our evaluative terms are not based on some model of correctness. It is interesting to see how principles of musical interpretation function in the discussion of a short story, essay, or treatise when a written work is treated as if notated.

April 10, 2015

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